No one who ever knew Joe Kanuka would be surprised by his 1998 induction into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame. He loved, played and supported sports, boosting amateur athletics both through his organizational participation and as an architect of the Western Canada Lottery Foundation. That he also made the provincial Transportation Hall of Fame may not have been written in the stars, but certainly relied on the tenacity and team spirit he learned on the gridiron. Joe Kanuka died on Oct. 22.
Born in Regina on Dec. 14, 1934, Joseph William Kanuka was the middle of three children of Ukrainian immigrants Ignatius and Anne. Despite his small stature – his standard joke when beginning a speech was, “I am standing!” – Kanuka quarterbacked his high school football team, and even played a year on the Regina College Cougars basketball squad. Recalled law firm colleague Keith Boyd: “He was built like Ron Lancaster: short, sturdy and very dedicated.”
After earning his bachelor of commerce degree in 1957, Kanuka completed law school in 1958, and joined a firm known at the time as MacPherson Neuman and Pierce. He was just the second articling student to work at the three-year-old enterprise, and his own name was added to the list of partners five years later. Since 1997, the company has been known as Kanuka Thuringer; and he was among the most active and most honoured of its many accomplished and prominent partners.
From the beginning of his career, Kanuka used his skills in aid of sports, doing pro bono legal work for the struggling Regina Rams football team. Perhaps he identified with them: In 1960, the same year he joined the Rams’ board of directors, his firm sent the junior lawyer to Toronto to deliver some important and time-sensitive documents. The company not only paid his fare, they sprang for a suit and shoes worthy of representing them.
Neither Kanuka nor the Rams struggled for long. In 1966, the year he was their president (and a law-firm partner of three years’ standing), the Rams won the Junior Football Championship. A year later, Kanuka joined the board of the Saskatchewan Roughriders, and a year after that became the founding president of the Saskatchewan Amateur Football Association.
Meanwhile, he had tumbled into his calling in transportation law. Not long after he was admitted to the bar, one of his clients, an oil transporter, recommended Kanuka to the Saskatchewan Trucking Association, which had gotten into a bind. It needed someone – the next day – to represent a group of carriers contesting a railway application for certain trucking rights.
Kanuka didn’t know much about the highway transportation industry, but the compact quarterback was used to going up against outsized obstacles. He roped together 10 of the truckers, spent a long evening with them, getting up to speed, and the next morning won the case. As his Transportation Hall of Fame profile noted: “After that, he had 10 or more highway carriers who would go nowhere else. He had become a trucking lawyer.”
Although his against-the-odds tenacity served him well, his real contribution to transportation law came from his team spirit. Co-operation “was very much in his nature,” Boyd said. He was “always looking for a solution that would make things work. He always liked to think that it’s better to have something move forward than to just be standing still.”
There was lots of moving forward to do. With the opening of the Trans-Canada Highway in 1962, both the opportunities and the challenges of interprovincial hauling greatly increased. Many were the joint hearings and the co-operation meetings of the Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba Highway Boards that he attended, whether as a carrier representative or as an expert witness. Indeed, Kanuka eventually appeared before most of Canada’s provincial transportation boards, as well as the Interstate Commerce Commission in the United States. He had the ability, Boyd said, to recognize the objectives of all the parties, and to come up with a solution that could satisfy everyone.
The 1970s were a blur of intense activity. One of his colleagues, whose office was just a few doors from Kanuka’s, once went months without seeing him at all, until they finally crossed paths in a hotel lobby in Calgary. Besides attending to his burgeoning law practice and five growing children, Kanuka remained an active sports volunteer. He donated his skills to help sports organizations incorporate, and to act as an athlete representative and agent through the Canadian Amateur Track and Field Association. He served as director and team manager of the Regina Optimist Swim Club in 1970-73, was a founding member of Sask Sport in 1971, and its president from 1972 to 1974. In 1972, he became the first commissioner of the Canadian Junior Football League, of which he had been founding president four years earlier.
This was also the time of his most enduring contribution to amateur sports sustainability. In the early 1970s, lotteries began popping up all over North America. The Saskatchewan Department of Culture and Youth joined with key community members, and Sask Sport was born as a co-ordinating and funding body for amateur sports organizations. By 1974, with Kanuka at the helm, Sask Sport had established the Saskatchewan Lotteries Trust Fund for Sport, Culture and Recreation. That year, Kanuka and other provincial lottery reps established the Western Canada Lottery Foundation (now known as Western Canada Lottery Corp.).
His community activities in no way detracted from his pursuit of legal excellence. In late 1977, Kanuka was one of two lawyers from Saskatchewan who joined more than 50 others to found what is now the Canadian Transport Lawyers Association, a professional and social forum. Two years later, he was named Queen’s Counsel.
Throughout all this activity, he remained cheerful and optimistic, fondly remembered around the law firm as a man who put a smile on everyone’s face.
He was 63 when he was inducted into the Saskatchewan Sports Hall of Fame as a multisport “builder” in 1998. Four years later he was named to the Saskatchewan Transportation Hall of Fame. While his major contributions had been to highway transport law during a key developmental period, he had also been involved in the regulation of the province’s short-line railways.
Even as recognition accrued, Kanuka’s life was changing. A stroke during surgery left him unable to speak. Although he overcame the disability, he took it as a sign that he should retire and focus on his family while he still had relatively good health.
Remembered a friend from his Aphasia Group: “Joe provided motivation to new stroke survivors, telling them: ‘If I can do it, you can, too!’ ” Affirmed his colleague Keith Boyd, even after his health issues, Kanuka always said he was “Hundred and ten percent!” and welcomed every day.
Kanuka leaves June Ann, his wife of 52 years, and his five children and their families.